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Team Fortress 2: Unlocking... Pandora's Box?

A little late to this, considering we're a PC site and it's our favourite PC shooter since we started doing this thing, but I've been having a quiet think about the forthcoming new content for Team Fortress 2. Its contents have been finalised, with Shacknews having my personal favourite coverage. In brief, there's three unlockable weapons weapons for the medic, a new map and game-mode and thirty six (Count 'em!) medic achievements. Robin Walker's talked about their commitment for doing similar expansions for the other classes. And the extra content is lovely and all but...

I dunno. I have reservations.

Which partially I feel bad about because - y'know - fanboy sense of entitlement is one of the most sickening things in the world, and this is free shiny stuff. And partially I think it perhaps shows a lack of faith in a team who've shown they, more than anyone else who released an online FPS game in the last year, know what they're doing. They're not unproven people, I should wait the couple of weeks then give it a crack rather than having little thinks. And also, I'm mainly a medic anyway, so this is extra toys for yours truly. But...

Okay, the new mode - one team pushing along a bomb-filled cart while the other tries to stop them from doing that - sounds splendid fun. More achievements are good, especially ones which are clearly trying to encourage good play. For example, number seven, Play Doctor: In a team with no medics, be first to switch to medic after a teammate calls "Medic!" and then heal 500 health. It's a cute way to try and encourage people to do the necessary without needing a Messiah Complex.

But the unlockable weapons. For those who don't follow the link, there's three - the Blutsaugher, Critzcrieg and Ubersaw unlocked when you read 12, 24 and 36 achievements respectively. The Blutsaugh is a primarily defensive version of the syringe gun which adds to your health when it hurts someone else, at the expense of the (incredibly valuable for the medic) critical hits. The Critzcrieg is an alternative ubercharge, which rather than making its target invulnerable, increases its targets chance to deliver critical hits to 100%. That means you can kill a lot of people... but you're still vulnerable. Finally, if you get them all, it's an Ubersaw which is slower than the standard saw, but a single hit will increase the ubercharge by a hefty 25%. Its offensive possibilities are kind of obvious. And brutal. And possibly very humiliating for the opposition.

My problems are threefold - one which kind of applies to any FPS that does the unlocking thing, and the second which applies specifically to Team Fortress 2 and the third which will probably be the result of the first two.

The first is that unlocking in a skill-based game rises my purist hackles. If I found myself playing Kasparov in chess, I'd like him to beat me because he's Kasparov, not because he has a piece I'm not allowed to use. It doesn't matter if that piece is balanced to what mine is - its just that the game is no longer symmetrical.

(Which isn't to say than a non-symmetrical game can't be fun - e.g. Most RTS - but a game which has tiny bits of non-symmetry built on the top also lacks the courage of its convictions)

Secondly, Team Fortress 2 has been a poster child for clarity in games. We've spent much of our existence linking to pieces where we've seen Valve talk about how they studied the silhouettes to make sure everyone was identifiable, to make the individual pieces of the game clear. The problem now is when you add extra powers, which aren't necessarily available to you, that becomes foggy. I see a medic now, I know what they can do and how to act. I see a medic in a few weeks time, I have a load of possibilities what they can do. I just don't know until they display these abilities, and then it's too late.

The third point is the direction it takes the game. There was something in Team Fortress 2 which attracted an impressively wide section of the PC gaming community - and I suspect it's the combination of its clarity and purity. We could see how the game worked - the characters were iconic in look (Hey! Cute!) and action (He is a soldier - so I'll know he'll be doing this sort of thing). It was welcoming in a way which many FPS increasingly weren't.

Conversely, this takes it back in the direction from whence it came. This is catering specifically to the player who only plays Team Fortress 2, who they're trying to retain the interest of. Because neither of the two problems I describe above really matter if you're playing the game that much - you'll get all the unlocks soon enough, making the game symmetrical with your peers (but above newcomers) and the extra variety and unpredictability adds spice. And when they've gone through all the classes, the game may even have as many toys as the original Team Fortress... which would leave Valve in the somewhat amusing position of disappointing a new hardcore they've nurtured when they strip it back for Team Fortress 3. This is a move which sacrifices a sliver of its appeal to more casual players for the true devotees. It takes it a half-step towards all those gentrified gaming communities which may as well be on the boom on its own private internet for how accessible they are to newcomers.

In other words, yes, my problem with the unlocks is that it makes Team Fortress 2 more like everyone else.

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